TOYou know someone Philadelphia is known for and they are likely to respond to the cheesesteak, the Declaration of Independence, or the Rocky movies starring Sylvester Stallone. It’s a safe bet they won’t say black jeans.
Or a black cowgirl who describes herself as Ivannah-Mercedes. “When I tell people that I ride horses, they say, ‘Here in Philadelphia? Where are the horses? ‘”, He says. “But when people see me riding a horse in Philadelphia, it’s usually about cameras and, ‘Oh my gosh, can I pet your horse? And where did you come from?
Ivannah-Mercedes is a member of one of the thriving, often invisible and unknown black riding communities, in US cities. She also makes her acting debut opposite Idris Elba in a new film about black horsemen in Philadelphia that seems set to give her way of life new recognition and respect.
Released last year at the Toronto Film Festival and now available on Netflix, Concrete Cowboy is a gritty drama about a father-son relationship set in Fletcher Street Stables, one of the first stables in the city center. from Philadelphia and now among the last.
It dates back more than a century, when horse-drawn carts delivered products, clothing, and milk. That era came to an end in the late 1950s when cars and trucks took over, but historic barns survived as a lovely community focal point and safe haven, often unbeknownst to city residents who live a few miles away.
Ivannah-Mercedes’ great-uncle was a cyclist on Fletcher Street in the 1950s and 1960s and took his mother there and to other stables, “so it is passed down from generation to generation,” she recalls. Ivannah-Mercedes has been riding since she was first able to sit down and took her first professional lesson at the age of eight.
“It is pure freedom. Horses themselves are very majestic creatures and once you really get to know them, the ins and outs and their brains, the way they think, the way they communicate with each other, it’s a beautiful experience to work with but riding them is almost indescribable. It’s the freedom I wish everyone could experience. “
She adds: “This is the city. People think of horses and they think of the country and they think of Texas, a lot of land. But with horses, if you can find a space, as long as you have time to dedicate it to your horse, horses can live anywhere ”.
The film follows Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a troubled 15-year-old who, expelled from school, is sent by his mother to live with his estranged father, Harp (Elba), who rehabilitates horses at the Fletcher Street stables. . The story conveys how horseback riding can give isolated youth a sense of purpose and self-worth.
This rings true to Ivannah-Mercedes. “My nephew has a hard time concentrating everywhere,” she says. “They always yell at him, ‘Focus, focus, focus!’ But when we’re in the stable and in that ring and he’s on that horse, that’s all that matters to him. He’s focused, he’s dedicated, and he wants to get things done.
“He wants to understand his horse. It’s nice. So I can definitely say that I have seen firsthand how much horses can make a person who is not focused on a regular basis focus and really get things done. “
It’s a world away from the classic movie image of a white cowboy like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood riding across vast open plains. In fact, a quarter of American cowboys were black, according to historians. The word “cowboy” was a racist term for a black ranch worker.
Ivannah-Mercedes comments: “Then we had the John Waynes in the world and they all said, ‘Oh well, I guess cowboys aren’t dirty people, they’re fun and interesting and they have skills.’ And so along the line, it transferred to something admirable and something that people wanted and then I think when that happened, that’s when it faded. “
And how unusual is she as a woman in this community? “In the movie, you will see very few female characters and that is pretty accurate from what you will find in most urban equine settings. There are not many women; It’s kind of a boys club and the women you meet are very strong women. They defend themselves because they have to and they are extraordinary. “
Concrete Cowboy is directed by Ricky Staub and based on a novel, Ghetto Cowboy, written by Gregory Neri, who first heard about the stables in 2008 when a friend sent him a link to a Life magazine article about Fletcher Street.
Speaking by phone from Vienna, Austria, Neri said: “The first image I saw was of a young black man standing on a horse in the middle of the city center and I had the reaction that most people have: what is it? this?
“I’ve been all over the United States, I’ve been to all kinds of neighborhoods, but as I was flipping through these photos in black jeans, I’ve never seen a place like this. It looked like some kind of modern western or something. “
Neri’s investigation led him to Fletcher Street, where he spoke with passengers and collected stories about the community. “It was clear to me that it was a great place to set a story. It fits with everything that I like to write, that they are hidden figures, peoples and communities that nobody knows about and that have literally been erased from the larger history of American histories.
“Even the people I knew in Philadelphia who lived a couple of miles away had no idea what was going on here because most people’s perception was, ‘Oh, this is a very dangerous neighborhood. I’m never going there and that’s it. ‘ It was a very negative perception.
“When I saw what was happening with these guys who were saving horses and then also saving little children by giving them horses and taking them into this world, for me it was something worth celebrating and something worth showing people: this is something that exists. It could be right next to you and you have no idea. “
Neri, 57, discovered the impact this subculture can have on young people who would otherwise stray. “There is a lot of gang activity and things like that happening in these neighborhoods. His idea was that if you gave a horse to a child on the street, that can change your life because owning your own horse is a full-time job. You’re there before school, you’re there after school, you’re there on weekends, you don’t have time to get in trouble.
“So having a little kid climb on this big animal literally changes their perspective because you’re looking at it from above and in a tough neighborhood you get instant respect because when people literally have to admire you, no one is going to mess with you when you are. in a horse.
“The way these children are judged depends on how well they take care of their animals, so if they feed them well and groom them well and mount them, that’s good support for them and if they don’t, it does. look bad. of the horse community. So you really instill in them a sense of self and pride and all these good things that you want young people to be exposed to. “
It’s a timely release as some stables continue to succumb to gentrification and even the Fletcher Street stables face an uncertain future. The unoccupied area that its passengers long used has been lost to developers, leaving it to seek a permanent home. The creators of Concrete Cowboy have helped create a non-profit organization to raise money for an equestrian center.
Neri adds: “One of the things that I hope the book and now the film will do is change the perception not only among the people but from the city itself and how the media talks about it – the whole idea of changing the narrative. Now it seems we want to encourage that this is something to celebrate and treasure rather than trying to erase it. So make it a good thing for the city as a whole. “
The hopes of such communities rest in a new generation personified by Ivannah-Mercedes, who both on screen and in real life shows resilience and good humor. She laughs as she describes her current ride, a horse named Mimi that belongs to her best friend.
“I called her the Horse of the Apocalypse because this horse can literally do anything and when the apocalypse comes I’m going to pick her up and saddle her up, saddlebags and all. And she will take me anywhere That horse will run for miles and days. It can climb mountains in the air. I love that horse. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism